No one needed to tell Sheriff Alec Lawson that thousands of dollars in silver bullion had been stolen from a train on the Northern Colorado Railroad: he was on the train at the time. Now he and his deputies had to search the mountains and mining camps for the thieves.
The more he looked into the robbery, the more Lawson was convinced that it was not just a simple theft. The desire for money was at the root of it all: bribes, bounties, social status and death.
The Sheriff and his men were risking their lives for other people's money, and death seems very close when you're riding on the roof of a runaway train !
Oops, I did it again
As well as writing fan fiction, I also write professionally published westerns. My books are published as part of the Black Horse Western line by Robert Hale. They are small hardbacks intended primarily for the library trade, though they can be bought online too.
However, I love writing about Wedge and his pilots, and in fact, was spending more time writing about them, than I was on my western fiction. Having already written three novels using characters from a sci-fi TV series, Blakes 7,it seemed obvious to combine the fanfic and the pro-fic by putting Wedge and co. into a Western too.
Filing off the serial numbers
The first job was to take the Star Wars characters - Wedge Antilles, Tycho Celchu, Wes Janson and Hobbie Klivian - and adapt them to a Western setting - a process known in fanfic as 'filing off the serial numbers'.
|Wedge Antilles||Tycho Celchu||Wes Janson||Hobbie Klivian|
The first step was to change the names. All four characters appear in the original trilogy of movies, though Wedge is the only one to have more than a single line of dialogue. I wanted to name my characters after the actors who played them, so far as was possible. Wedge was the easiest to identify, being played by the talented and gorgeous Denis Lawson. As Denis is Scottish, I made the Wedge-character Scottish too, and chose the first name Alec for him, as a good Scottish name that I like. So the Corellian Wedge Antilles becomes the Scottish Alec Lawson.
Next was Hobbie, played by Richard Oldfield, and so renamed as Ethan Oldfield. Wes Janson, played by Ian Liston, became Sam Liston. I did consider using a different surname, so I didn't want to have Lawson and Liston in use together, as they are rather similar. However, I decided to stick with Liston, as I would mostly be referring to the characters by their first names anyway.
The most difficult character to rename was Tycho Celchu. He's not specifically named in the films, though he is identified by the author Michael A Stackpole as pilot of one of the A-wings that fly through the second Death Star. No actor is identified with the role, so I had no name to use for him. I decided to give the character a Germanic background, which seemed to suit the physical despcription, and so chose the first name Karl. The surname, Firth, is a Sheffield locality name. There's a Sheffield district name in every book I've written. (Bonus points to anyone who correctly identifies all of them).
Next was the matter of adapting the characters' background from their Star Wars setting, to a western one. The original characters are all pilots in the military, two with formal training and two without. Wedge is the commanding officer, Tycho is his second, and Hobbie and Wes are a rank or two lower. I wanted to keep something of the military background, and the ties formed by shared service, without actually writing an army story. So I made the characters all former cavalrymen who had served together.
Like Wedge, Alec has no formal training, but made his way up through the ranks, finally becoming a captain. As his second-in-command, Karl naturally had to be a lieutenant. It was uncommon at the period of the novel for enlisted men to become commissioned officers, as Alec does. It was logical that if Karl were a lieutenant, then he would probably have had formal military training. This is also in keeping with his alter-ego, Tycho, who had attended the Imperial Starfighter Academy. So Karl became the only formally trained officer of the group.
Keeping the same relative ranks between the characters meant that Ethan and Sam would both be sergeants. Although Hobbie, like Tycho, had also attended the starfighter academy, his western version would probably not have done if he were only a sergeant. So Ethan has no formal military background, but instead became a restless civilian who enlisted as a regular soldier.
Neither Wes Janson nor his alternative, Sam Oldfield, have any military training. Both versions of the character chose to become a soldier early on as adults and find that the military lifestyle suits them.
When it came to designing backgrounds for the characters, I was pretty much on my own. We know nothing about Wes and Hobbie before they joined the military, and nothing whatsoever about their families, other than the names of the planets they grew up on. We know a little more about Tycho, as his family are at least named and we are told what his father's job was. Tycho's family and world are literally destroyed when the Death Star blows up the planet Alderaan in Star Wars. I decided to be less destructive, and merely have Karl estranged from his family. As Tycho loves, and eventually marries, a woman called Winter, I gave Karl a romantic interest called Renee Winter.
Wedge is the best developed of the Star Wars characters, and I adaped some of his background for Alec. Wedge was orphaned at 17 when his parents were killed in a fire at the fuelling depot they ran. This meant Wedge had to strike out on his own at a relatively early age. He had no family of his own, just friends who became as close as family. Being fellow pilots, however, Wedge had to cope with seeing many of those friends killed through the years. I followed a similar pattern for Alec. He too was orphaned, when his parents were killed in a fire at their home when he was 15. Alec was left without a family, and found a substitute in the close bonds formed with fellow soldiers.
Staying with the theme
With the four main characters borrowed from the Star Wars universe, I decided that I might as well throw in a few more in-jokes and references for SW fans.
Like Tycho, Wedge also has an on-going romance, but a more convoluted one. Wedge has a lengthy on-off relationship with a young widow named Iella Wessiri. Eventually the two of them sort themselves out and get married. I decided to provide Alec with a lovely young widow too, and named her Eileen Wessex. Iella is an intelligence officer - not really a job that Eileen could plausibly have in the Old West. Like Iella, Eileen is an intelligent, educated woman; I wanted her to have a job, as Iella does, and so schoolteacher was the logical choice.
Before Wedge settles down with Iella, he has a romance with a frilly blue alien, frequently referred to by Wedge fans as the 'blue bird-brain'. This romance was so unpopular with fans that Iella was subsequently created by another author to give Wedge an acceptable partner. The author responsible for the frilly blue alien, and making Wedge act like a 14 year old with a crush, was Kevin J Anderson. So I named the villian of my story K J Anderson, much to the amusement of other Wedge fans.
And as George Lucas created the whole Galaxy Far Far Away in the first place, I named the sheriff's town Lucasville, in his honour.
Ooo - look: scenery !
I decided to set the novel in Colorado, though a different part to where Jonah Durrell roams in Two-Gun Trouble. When I visited Colorado, I travelled on the Durango to Silverton Railroad, which is a fabulous trip on a steam train through the beautiful mountains. I was on a coach near the rear of the train and got some terrific photos during my trip.
The front of the train curves around the mountain
Interior of the coach
Abandoned mine railroad near Creede.
The river Animas, seen from the train.
The track runs so close to the river here.
The little platform at the end of the coach.
Tourism was already an established industry in Colorado by 1883, when Silver Express is set. I have a modern reprint of a 'Tourist Guide To Colorado In 1879'. It was very useful for the writing of my book, as it details the towns in the area that Sheriff Lawson works. The fictional Lucasville is in the same place as the real-life Longmont. The other towns mentioned in the book, such as Lyons and Caribou, are real places, though some no longer exist as they did in 1879. The Tourist Guide describes scenic rail trips for the visitor, places of interest, and the hotels and spas that serve the tourist trade. The clear air made Colorado a popular destination for consumptives, and others came to visit the many mineral springs. Other visitors simply came to admire the scenery, just as they do today.
Ethan looked pained. "Alec, we live in Colorado. The only thing this state's got more of than mines is scenery."
Full Steam Ahead
The railroad is an important symbol of the Old West. It features in many movies and was possibly even more important in the real history than it seems in films. It's not something I've dealt with very much in my books so far. The railroad, or rather, the absence of trains, is a feature of the story in Darrow's Word. A series of blizzards isolates the town, preventing the regular trains from getting through, and supplies of food fall dangerously low.
I decided that for Silver Express, (then untitled), I would feature a scene with a train - in fact, I would write a shoot out on top of a moving train. That seemed like a good, dramatic climax to a western.
However, doing some research on the railroad showed that travelling by train was far more dangerous than I'd realized. A lot of the track out west had been laid in a hurry as companies rivalled one another to be the first to new places and to win routes. In some places the rail bed wasn't constructed properly: tracks might be laid on frozen ground that later softened, rails and ties were made of cheap material that distorted and broke, the tracks wasn't graded properly and bridges and trestles were sometimes quickly put up with poor-quality wood. And of course, they were building their railroads over some incredibly challenging terrain.
There was other problems with the trains themselves. Although Westinghouse patented his first air brake in 1869, the railroad companies were slow to take it up, especially in the West. Trains were largely braked by primitive handbrakes on each car. These were operated by wheels on the roof of each car. The brakemen rode on the roofs, jumping from car to car on the moving train in order to operate each brake when the engineer signalled for it. With the cars all being braked separately, they deccelerated at different speeds, bumping against one another. At best, this meant an uncomfortable ride for the passengers. At worst, it could break the link and pin coupling between cars, causing a 'break in two'.
Not only did the link and pin system break more easily than other coupling systems, it was very dangerous for the men who coupled the cars together. They had to insert the links - each one like a link in a chain - into coupler pockets (sockets) on adjoining cars, then push a pin through a slot on each pocket, to hold the link in place. There was no standardization, and the pockets on cars would often be at different heights, meaning the coupler had to find bent 'gooseneck' links that would be the best fit for each coupling: 'best' fit didn't necessarily mean a good fit. Fixing the links in place meant standing between the cars which had to be moved apart to fit the links in, then closed together for the second pin to be fitted. Many couplers lost fingers, crushed between pockets, and many were killed by being crushed between moving cars coming together while trying to fit a stubborn pin into its hole.
I had a grand time using this information in the big shoot-out at the end of Silver Express. I looked at online maps of the area, to find a suitable bit of scenery for the action to take place. The South St Vrain Creek runs through a lovely, twisty valley, with some splendidly tight corners for the runaway train to career around. And there's a section called Deadman's Gulch, which was one of the best spots for the bad guys to ambush the train. What more could I ask for ?
"Right." Ethan turned and looked at the boxcars behind them. "Boss, I think there's a bigger gap between the second and third cars."
"Godammit !" Alec said fiercely. "She's broke in two. Brake the second car halfway, and try to alert Karl. You're not to try jumping the gap at any cost, hear me ? Then brake halfway on the first boxcar, back to the second, and wait for my signal to brake fully. Got that ?"
Once I'd got my research done and sorted the basics of the plot, the book was fairly straightforward to write. There was a pause in the middle, while I was diverted by some Star Wars fanfic I had ideas for and needed to write. It helped that I'd written plenty about the characters before, in their SW personas. There is a warm affection between them, as well as a strong sense of humour, that makes them very enjoyable to spend time with, and to write. As usual, it took me ages to pick a title. I expect to write more about Sheriff Lawson, so I needed a title with some element that could be carried into other books. I didn't want to use Lawson's name, as I already have the Darrow books to find name-based titles for. I eventually settled on Silver Express, as both silver and trains feature in the story, and either word could be used as part of the title of another novel, depending on what the plot is. We shall have to see.
Silver Express was accepted at the beginning of August 2008. The editing was very straightforward; there were a couple of continuity errors but they were sorted out with the minimum of interference to the text. The blurb was accepted without change. Publication was scheduled for the end of September 2009. A few weeks before then, I was sent six copies of the cover, which was the first time I'd seen it. I wasn't thrilled with it, as it's very generic. I had been hoping for something featuring a train and/or mountains. Instead, there's just a bloke with a gun, a corpse and an undistinguished frame building. The man with the gun doesn't even had a law badge, which you might hope for in a book about four lawmen.
When the book arrived, I sent four of my copies out to friends who are pilot fans. They all enjoyed the book (at least, that's what they told me). Sometime back in the early 90's I wrote to Lucasfilm with a suggestion for a series of novels about Wedge Antilles. They replied that they preferred to use writers with experience in the field and at that time, I only had one or two westerns in print, so wasn't exactly a known name. Some two or three years later, they did start publishing their novels about Wedge and Rogue Squadron. I loved reading them and writing fanfic inspired by them, but it's very satisfying to have my own Wedge story actually published. Of course, Alec Lawson isn't Wedge Antilles and as I write more books about him, Alec will develop more as himself. He should still remain recognizably as close kin of Wedge Antilles, keeping the same ideals and basic personality. In any case, I have Silver Express as my tribute to Wedge Antilles, and to Denis Lawson, the gorgeous, talented actor who first breathed life into a bit part role that caught the audience's imagination. (And who is much better looking than the dude on the cover of my book)
I was pleased when Silver Express was taken up by Lindford to be published as one of their large print editions. I was even more pleased when I saw the cover chosen for it. The picture actually has a man standing on top of a train car, firing a gun ! As you can see below, the car depicted is almost exactly the same as the ones in the photos I took of the Durango-Silverton Railroad.